A Guide to Media Relations in Ramadan (and Eid)

Firstly, Ramadan Kareem! I know I’m late (it’s the workload), but I wanted to share a guide on how to deal with the media in Ramadan. For those who don’t know, Ramadan is the holiest month of the calendar for Muslims globally. Muslims commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Mohammad, which was shared in Ramadan, by fasting during Ramadan. This annual observance of spirituality is regarded as one of the five pillars of Islam, and Muslims fast from dawn till dusk. This also means a shift in work schedules for many, with those fasting working shorter hours.

So, what does it mean for PR in Muslim countries or regions such as the Gulf? Here’s my guide to media relations in Ramadan below.

A season for greetings

It’s usual to receive two sets of greetings during Ramadan. The first is at the beginning of Ramadan, where people wish one another a happy or beautiful Ramadan (we usually say Ramadan Kareem). The second message is shared at the end of Ramadan, for Eid, the festival which marks the end of the month.

The Middle East is a society built on relationships, and it’s no surprise that many PR professionals send out such greetings to media to build their relationship with those in the media. A decade back, I used to receive greetings the old-fashioned way, in paper format. Today, I’m much more likely to receive an electronic version, either shared by email or via instant messenger.

Here’s two sample Ramadan message designs for you.

The start of Ramadan is marked by a crescent moon, and this image is commonly used for Ramadan greetings

Besides the crescent moon, there’s many different images associated with Ramadan. Another common image is the mosque, the place of worship for Muslims.

The Iftar or Suhoor Gathering

It’s also common to invite media to an Iftar, the meal which breaks the fast at sunset. The Iftar and Suhoor, which follows the Iftar later in the evening, are occasions to engage with others. PR agencies and clients will often invite a group of media to dine with them.

What’s great about a media Iftar is the opportunity to meet with and talk to journalists in a relaxed atmosphere, without the need to discuss work. The Iftar and suhoor gatherings are a great opportunity to build relations with key media contacts for an hour or two.

There’s other occasions during Ramadan, which are unique to certain parts of the region. In Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar, many firms celebrate with their employees or media during a Ghabga, which is a gathering between Iftar and Suhoor. Whatever they’re called in their respective regions, make sure you know these events and how you can use them for media relations.

The Media Working Hours

Many companies reduce their working hours for those fasting (some reduce the hours for all employees). I asked three media people, one in a newspaper, the second from TV, and a third from a magazine, about how Ramadan changes their operations. Their responses are below:

  1. The Newspaper Editor: Working hours do change, and they don’t. My organization reduces hours like everyone else, but reporters must still find stories to fill our pages. The paper still has to come out. We try to reduce the workload but we still have to provide coverage. We’re less demanding on how many stories they file, but since there are fewer press conferences and events, reporters really have to go the extra mile to find people to talk to. Page counts come down slightly on slower news days, but that usually just means fewer international stories for the editors to source. But deadlines don’t change, reporters must still file stories, and the presses still need to be fed. And in the unlikely event that something big breaks… it doesn’t matter if Iftar is in 15 minutes. We want that story. Now, before competition gets it.
  2. The TV Editor: There aren’t many operational changes. Working hours are reduced for those in admin and management positions. For the editorial and operations teams, the hours are the same as outside of Ramadan. The biggest change is that we shift shows around, so the morning show is moved even earlier. Other program timings may change too.
  3. The Magazine Editor: There’s really no change to how we work in Ramadan.

Ramadan Themes

The other major change during Ramadan is a shift in coverage. Top of the list are issues related to Ramadan, such as charity, spirituality and other related issues. A simple example of a charity initiative is shown below.. The Dubai-based Virgin Megastore launched an initiative called Pay it Forward, in collaboration with delivery service Fetchr, to support the Dubai Foundation for Women & Children, which provides protection and support services to victims of domestic violence, child abuse and human trafficking.

Unsurprising, there’s less discussion about certain subjects (think alcohol, conspicuous consumption on luxury goods, and other issues which contradict the spirituality of the month). Many have come up a cropper on this issue, such as the below which was put out by a hotel in Dubai.

Atelier was criticized on social media for its gold-themed Iftar (and for the advert also mentioning alcohol)

Make the most of the holy month

Ramadan is a great time for engaging with media, and building relations. I hope that you’ll enjoy this time of year as much as I do, both for the spirituality of the occasion as well as the opportunity to see media friends.

The National, City 7 TV and the Quest to Make Media Profitable via Digital

Both The National and City 7 TV will be letting go of many editorial staff as they look to restructure (image source: Arabian Business)

The past couple of weeks has been tough for many colleagues in the UAE media industry. First, information was leaked about job losses at the Abu Dhabi-based, English language daily The National. The reported job cuts follows five months after the paper’s purchase by International Media Investments (IMI), a subsidiary of private investment firm Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corporation (ADMIC) from state-owned Abu Dhabi Media Company (ADM). At least a quarter of the editorial staff will be leaving The National by the end of June 2017, as the paper’s owners support a “digital transformation” at the paper.

“As part of this transition, over the past few months, IMI has finalised its new vision for The National, supported by a robust editorial strategy to ensure that The National fulfils its potential as a premier English language source of news about and for the Middle East,” a spokesperson told the AFP.

Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corporation also owns a majority stake in Sky News Arabia, and a project team has been set up to aid the “digital transformation” at The National.

The second news story over the past week were job cuts at Dubai-based English language television channel, City 7 TV. The channel has been sold by BinHendi Enterprises to WeTel-TV, a TV platform for global educational news and current affairs. A number of the editorial team have left as the channel focuses on education.

For many media outlets, the focus is increasingly on profit. In a region which is going through austerity, and where media ownership is primarily in the hands of government (for newspapers and television at the very least), there seems to be a rethink among many outlets as to how to reduce costs. As with every other region, digital is waved as the answer. However, even global titles such as the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Daily Mail have struggled to turn a profit online. Digital revenue streams simply aren’t going to replace lost print advertising any time soon.

The other question that The National’s media owners need to ask is how will the loss of so many journalists impact editorial quality? When it comes to media consumption, online is no different from offline; readers want good content. How that content is delivered is obviously different, but the demand for good media will remain. And will there be a logical approach to a “digital transformation”, that combines both The National’s quality copy with the multimedia abilities of Sky News Arabia? An Abu-Dhabi based rival to AJ+ would be an exciting proposition, and I hope that The National has a strong digital enabler at the helm.

Whatever happens with both publications, my thoughts are very much with those people who are leaving. I hope that you’ll find new employment soon.

The American Strongman – A Middle East view on Trump’s first 48 hours as President

2016_11_30-trump-arab-dictator_homepage-3-22896132107

President Trump and his team have shown increasing disdain for the media during their first weekend in office. Some commentators have drawn parallels to my own region (image source: Vocativ)

If the first two days were anything to go by, we’re in for four years of presidential reality TV. From the spectacle of the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States to an impromptu press announcement at the White House (there were no questions, so I won’t call it a briefing), and news interviews by White House staffers attacking the media; all of these events have made for compelling viewing.

Looking in from the outside, here in the Middle East, none of these actions should surprise or startle me. I live in a region where the words media and propaganda are often used to mean the same thing in the Arabic language by the region’s population. I’ve also heard many commentators in the region (and in the US) compare what the Trump administration is doing with the media to how regimes such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein ‘communicated’ (if you want an example, just watch this clip from Saddam’s Minister of Information Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf during the 2003 Iraq invasion).

While there’s been much laughter at some of the messaging (the phrase “alternative facts” is my vote for the dictionary addition of 2017), I’ve seen a number of worrying signs that the Trump Administration wants to take the media and the public down a path that we’re all too familiar with in the region. Here’s why.

  • Delegitimize the Media

The first step on this road is silencing critics. And those who have been most critical of President Trump are the media. During the weekend when visiting Langley, the CIA’s headquarters, he uttered the line, “The reason you’re my first stop is that, as you know, I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.” This was in part due to their coverage of the Presidential Inauguration, and their rebuttal of the claims on the number of attendees.

This isn’t a new statement. President Trump has made the claim numerous times, including in April 2016 when he said, “You know we have a great time considering the subject matter is no good. Right? But when we say—look at all those hats, right?—”Make America Great Again.” When we say that—you know somebody, a reporter—by the way the world’s most dishonest people are back there. Look at all the cameras going. Look at all those cameras. It’s unbelievable. They are dishonest. Most of them. Not all of them. But Most of them.”

And, here he is on camera saying the same thing.

The reasoning is simple. American media is independent of any government ownership, and as such it often takes politicians to task for their words and deeds. By delegitimizing the media and going straight to the public through social media (mainly Twitter), President Trump and his administration won’t face the same level of intrusive questioning. The administration has already threatened to hold the media to account, and President Trump has held one press conference since July 2016, during which he claimed CNN and Buzzfeed were fake news sites. A free media is an essential tool to hold governments to account; muzzle the media, discredit them, and you’ll face fewer questions from a diminishing press sector.

Vocativ has run a piece on this, named Trump And The Media: The Arab Dictator’s Guide. It’s a great read for those of you who follow media-related issues.

  • Change the Narrative

President Trump and his team are masters at switching attention from one issue to answer. In his blog, the London-based PR professional Stephen Waddington has listed a number of tactics used to divert attention from hard policy issues to softer social issues. One of my favorites is dead cats, and to quote from Wadds:

Trump uses Twitter as a tactical weapon, hitting out at opponents, and directly countering attacks.

Tweets are literal, short and direct. He uses capital letters, single words and repetition for effect. There can be no uncertainty in the content or context of a message, and he seldom entertains any further discussion.

It’s an approach is known as the dead cat, created by political strategist Lynton Crosby. His response to losing an argument was to throw an issue, known as a dead cat, on the table.

The appearance of a dead cat, albeit metaphorical, is shocking. It quickly shifts attention, forcing opponents to move on and focus on a new issue.

And then there’s a concept called the Overton Window. Developed by political analyst Joseph Overton, this is a spectrum of views which are deemed acceptable to the public. It also explains how  a theory of how a policy that’s initially considered extreme might over time be normalized through gradual shifts in public opinion.

There’s a similar theory in marketing. Known as the Anchoring Effect, this describes a common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the “anchor”) when making decisions. Once the anchor is set, decisions are then made by adjusting around the initial anchor, regardless of the legitimacy of the actual anchor number. For example, a brand will introduce a new, super premium/expensive toothpaste. That new product will shift perception of the whole category, and push consumers to spend more on toothpaste by choosing the second or third most expensive option.

We’re seeing this use of the Overton Window and the Anchoring Effect in US politics today, with politicians introducing extreme ideas to shift the discourse away from the mainstream and towards their own views and beliefs. They’re changing the narrative over the long-term, to make what was once unpalatable an acceptable argument.

These narrative tactics have been used in countless societies, most recently in countries such as Israel, where the public has accepted once right-wing ideas such as the expansion of settlements. It’s clear that President Trump’s team aren’t interested in answering questions on issues such as the Affordable Care Act, but rather they want to change the narrative around “Making America Great Again”, an idea of little substance but great appeal. We’re used to such efforts in the Middle East (Saddam regularly compared himself to great Iraqi heroes from history, as a means to encourage nostalgia and promote similar ideals).

  • Create a Cult of Personality

It’s also clear that President Trump has a thin skin. He’s repeated countless theories and statements about winning the popular vote (the President claims, without any evidence, that he lost the popular vote based on mass voter fraud). And then there’s the debate around the Inauguration attendance. This President takes things personally. He sees himself as a nation strongman who will change US politics for the betterment of its people. And woe betide those who disagree with him.

What’s also remarkable is how his team speak of the President. During the CIA visit at the weekend Vice President Pence introduced the President by informing the audience that he had never met anyone “who is a greater strategic thinker” on matters of national security. The White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said on Sunday that, “I’ve never seen anyone work harder or have more energy than this president.”

If you were to listen to the administration’s messaging, you’d think President Trump is a superman, an Übermensch from the pages of Friedrich Nietzsche. The Chicago Tribune’s Steve Chapman points out the folly in their praise, but how many will believe the fawning praise? And where will this lead us to? Will we see the White House building a cult of personality around the President?

 

As a person who straddles both Eastern and Western cultures, I can see the successes and failures of these societies a different clarity. I admire the US for its freedom of speech (which is enshrined in the Constitution) and for its media industry. I’m also a believer in public debate when it comes to governance. Are the past couple of days a sign of things to come in the US? I hope that I’m mistaken, but over this first weekend of the Trump Presidency I have seen parallels between the two regions when it comes to media messaging. And this isn’t what I want to see for the US. I hope I’m wrong.

 

 

Guest Post – Failing at the basics

headdesk-646x363

The anonymous editor really isn’t impressed by the lack of communication skills on show on the region’s agency side

Here’s a guest post for you, from our anonymous editor who has some advice for us public relations professionals in the region. Enjoy the read!

Here’s a question for you PR practitioners – what would your client think if a journalist told them ‘I emailed your agency with a request two weeks ago but I didn’t get any reply from them’?

The client wouldn’t be impressed, right?

So why, as a journalist, am I faced over and over again, with deafening silence when I contact so many different agencies? In the past six months, I’ve had numerous occasions where I have sent a request to an agency, and gotten absolutely no reply whatsoever. The same agencies are quite capable of making constant phone calls to my mobile when they want something, but apparently seem to think it’s OK to not even acknowledge an email sent ‘proactively’ by a journalist.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect a reply, even if its just saying – ‘we got your email and our team will be in touch’. I don’t know whether you are waiting for the client to respond, but at least telling me you are working on it, or that the client is away, lets me know, so I can find another source or another interview subject if you aren’t able to reply by my deadline.

Sometimes an email may go to the wrong practice team or to someone who is on holiday. But everyone should know that if they are the wrong person, they need to pass the email along to the right person. An ‘out of office’ message is a simple courtesy. Even if you are not working with that client any more, not replying is bad for any future relationship with that reporter.

At the end of the day, your client is paying you to field media enquiries – I don’t expect 24-7 service (even if many clients might seem to believe they own every hour of your day!) – but your client has a right to expect communications from media during office hours are answered asap. Not ‘I was in meetings all week’ or some other excuse…

Failing to respond to an email from a ‘customer’ is a basic failing in business practice, for any business. When the business is PR and you are selling the strength of your ‘relationships’ with the media, it’s just plain stupid.

What does the blocking of the Doha News website mean for media?

qatar-block-618x415

Many Qatar-based visitors to the Doha News website will have seen this block message yesterday. No reason has been given for why the news site is blocked.

It’s not been a good week for the region’s media. First of all 7Days announced that it’d close by the end of the year. And now, the Doha News website has been blocked by Qatar’s two telecommunications firms, Vodafone and Ooredoo. The news site, which is the only independent media outlet in Qatar (i.e. not government owned, was inaccessible to many inside Qatar. To quote from the site’s own announcement:

As many are aware, Doha News became inaccessible to most online users in Qatar as of yesterday, Nov. 30.

Our URL – dohanews.co – was apparently blocked by both of Qatar’s internet service providers, Ooredoo and Vodafone, simultaneously.

Since then, the majority of people in the country have been unable to access our website on their desktop computers and mobile devices.

Exceptions included access to a VPN (virtual private network) or unfiltered corporate internet.

Yesterday, Doha News put in requests for information from the Communications Regulatory Authority (CRA), Ooredoo, Vodafone, the Government Communications Office (GCO) and Qatar’s National Information Security Center (Q-Cert.)

While we waited for their response, we temporarily diverted readers from dohanews.co to another domain name, doha.news.

However, that URL also stopped working in short order.

Deliberately blocked

Given this development and the silence from the government and ISP providers, we can only conclude that our website has been deliberately targeted and blocked by Qatar authorities.

We are incredibly disappointed with this decision, which appears to be an act of censorship.

We believe strongly in the importance of a free press, and are saddened that Qatar, home of the Doha Center for Media Freedom and Al Jazeera, has decided to take this step.

There’s been no announcement from Qatar’s authorities as to why Doha News has been blocked, and there’s been much speculation on Twitter about why the site has been blocked (follow the hashtag  which translates to Doha News website ban to see more).

I’ve written about Doha News before. I respect their team for writing about subjects no other media outlet will cover. I value a free media because I understand the good it does for society. Journalism encourages debate and discourse, it promotes an exchange of ideas and it supports transparency. Doha News is a credit to Qatar. I hope that whoever was behind the decision to block Doha News realizes this, and flicks the proverbial switch. However, given the prevailing sentiment, this hope may be ill-founded.

In the meantime, I wish the very best for the Doha News team. As they’ve shown, there’s a futility to blocking websites in today’s age. They’re already publishing on Facebook and Medium. We are in an age where it’s easier than ever to share information, and attempts to block this only result in more coverage of an issue.

Today the only effective way to stop a story breaking is to jail the reporter. However, this approach will do major harm to Qatar’s reputation, particularly as the home of the Arab world’s largest and most influential broadcaster (Al Jazeera’s acting director general was talking about professional journalism only six weeks back). Already the Doha News story has gone global thanks to reporting by the Associated Press, with coverage as far off as America.

For Shabina, Omar and Doha News team, I and others will keep on supporting you in your mission to report on everything that is happening in Qatar.

What does the closure of 7Days mean for the UAE’s print industry?

7days

7Days was a refreshing change to the region’s media landscape. The paper, which is closing for good at the end of December, will be missed by its readers and by the industry.

Many of us in the media industry were saddened to hear of the impending closure of the English-language daily 7Days. The paper was founded 13 years back in Dubai, and ran on a free distribution model similar to the concept pioneered by the Metro newspaper back in London.

7Days was unique in many ways. First was its business model, which was to make money through advertising rather than newspaper sales. Secondly, 7Days positioned itself as a community newspaper. It had a strong roster of journalists who focused on local interest pieces. And the community responded in kind; 7Days became known for its letters page, where readers would often vent their frustrations (I’ll admit, I was a huge fan).

The paper had struggled with its finances; a month ago, the management team announced that they’d be cutting the daily print run to once a week and focusing online. And now, the paper will be shutting down completely. To quote the statement made by 7Days CEO Mark Rix:

“The current trading environment and future global outlook for print advertising remains severely challenged. Whilst it was our stated intention to re-focus and restructure the business for 2017 and beyond, it has since proved not possible to create an acceptable cost base that could deliver a viable and sustainable business. It is therefore with great sadness that we announce the unique 7DAYS news brand will close and thus, cease to inform and entertain the UAE in its refreshing and inimitable way.”

While there’s been much talk about the decline of print, both globally and regionally, I have a different take on 7Days. Most of the papers in the region are government-owned, and as such their operations are bankrolled by the state. In addition, due to their ownership they’re seen as a means to communicate with government and hence attract a level of advertising that may seem incongruous with their distribution/readership numbers. For those who have worked in media here, they will be aware that a number of dailies have been unprofitable for many years.

7Days was different – it was an attempt to redefine how a paper could operate and make money. 7Days didn’t hold the same editorial line as other papers in the UAE due to its ownership (the paper is part-owned by the UK’s Daily Mail General Trust). And its distribution setup was different as well; the paper made money from advertising and classifieds rather than paper sales. The paper was also audited; at its height the paper distributed over 62,000 copies daily (except Fridays).

The fact that 7Days was able to operate for 13 years with an operating model that was both new and unique to the region is a testament to how well the paper was run by the editorial and sales teams. 7Days survived many challenges, including one imposed closure and one recession. However, with money flowing from traditional to new advertising models such as digital and social, the model has not proven to be sustainable without the backing of government largess. Even in the Gulf, the future seems to be focused on digital media.

I was asked by one young public relations professional, Rehmatullah Sheikh, what would happen to 7Days digital assets, particularly its social media following. The paper has developed a large online presence, with 161,000 followers on its @7DAYSUAE Twitter account, and 644,730 likes on its Facebook site. Some have suggested that the paper, particularly its letters section, could live on through these sites. There certainly seems a will among the readership to see 7Days continue in some form or another. Could 7Days become a pioneer for the second time, and promote a public-led media forum through its online assets? I for one hope that 7Days will continue in some shape or form.

Blurring the lines? Publishers who become Content Creators and what it means for the PR sector

As publishers shift their business model to content creation for clients, how should the PR industry react? (image source: writemysite.co.uk)

As publishers shift their business model to content creation for clients, how should the PR industry react? (image source: writemysite.co.uk)

Who’d be a publisher right now? Revenues are dropping, print is going out of fashion (for most of the world), and people are no longer reading long form. So, what does one do? The answer may be to produce content for others.

Earlier this month Dubai-based publisher ITP announced the launch of ITP Live, a new division that would focus on five areas – creating a social media influencers’ agency, video content creation, digital sales representation, e-commerce, live events and training.

Another Dubai-based publisher, Motivate, works with companies to offer products such as video creation. To quote from Motivate’s own website, the firm is able to “conceptualise, storyboard, film, produce, host and share with our audience a beautifully crafted engaging video.”

Creating good content is only half of the battle. For firms seeking out content creation, the appeal of pre-existing media channels to distribute that content may be too good to resist. But, there’s the ethical question of boundaries. For a publisher which is offering a content creation service, should they also offer clients the opportunity to use their media vehicles to distribute that content? Would the usual editorial rules apply?

The Middle East’s publishing sector has been more fortunate than most when it comes to growth; with the exception of the downturn in 2008, relatively few publications have gone belly-up. However, the strain on budgets is telling. Many publications which had a roster of staff now only have one or two editors. With marketing budgets either shrinking due to the economy or being shifted to digital, will more publishers go down the content creation route? How will this affect their editorial policies and how will this affect the public relations industry?

For years, communications and marketing agencies have been the preferred option for companies needing either written or multimedia content. This content would have then been shared, either online or through traditional media channels. Will publishers now begin to compete with PR agencies? There’s lots of lines which are now being blurred. Where do you think we’re heading? I’d love to hear your views.